Stakeholders seek community consensus, trust in S.F. Japantown’s future


San Francisco’s Japantown is one of three remaining Japanese American ethnic enclaves in the United States. In its more than 100-year history, the Nikkei population in San Francisco’s Western Addition has survived two major social upheavals, the wartime incarceration and urban redevelopment.

As a reaction to urban redevelopment in the 1960s through ‘80s, the Nikkei community came together to plan for the preservation of Japantown, culminating in the Japantown Cultural Heritage and Economic Sustainability Strategy. The JCHESS ­— a result of more than a dozen years of planning ­— addresses concerns by San Francisco Japantown’s community and outlines 19 recommendations that, according to the document, intend to “preserve and promote a neighborhood’s cultural heritage.”

The strategy document offers guidelines for the city and the Japantown community to consider in order to “secure Japantown’s future as the historical and cultural heart of the Japanese and Japanese American Community, … as a thriving commercial and retail district, … as a home to residents and community-based institutions, … (and) as a physically attractive and vibrant environment.”

The strategy identifies the neighborhood’s historical significance, and serves as a reference point for the Japantown community stakeholders to refer to as a city-endorsed guide for future developments.

Creating the JCHESS
Paul Osaki, executive director of the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California, said the process began in 1997, when the nonprofit gathered community members to discuss the preservation of Japantown through an ad hoc committee of more than 50 community members, known as the Japantown Planning, Preservation and Development Task Force. Initially a post-redevelopment project for the community center, the work resulted in the creation of the Concepts for the Japantown Community Plan in 2000, and the passage of S.B. 307 in 2001, which acknowledged the need to preserve California’s three remaining Japantowns and allocate grant money to the cities of San Jose, Los Angeles and San Francisco for cultural preservation.

The Japantown Task Force was formed to implement the conceptual community plan of 2000 in 2002, according to JTF Executive Director Bob Hamaguchi. Hamaguchi helped initiate the Better Neighborhood Plan in 2007. From there, the JCHESS evolved out of the concepts plan and the BNP, but the objectives have largely remained the same, Hamaguchi told the Nichi Bei Weekly.

The BNP was drafted from 2007 to 2009 amid major changes in Japantown. In early 2006, Kintetsu Enterprises Company of America had sold its remaining San Francisco Japantown properties, two Japan Center Malls and two hotels, to 3D Investments.

According to JTF meeting minutes, the task force and the Planning Department, with support from 3D Investments, led the effort for the BNP, which assumed substantial commercial development. The city turned the BNP down, however, due to criticisms from the Japantown community.

Osaki said he led the effort to stop the plan in 2009. “At that very last meeting, I went up and stopped that plan with other people,” he said. According to Osaki, who was the BNP’s cultural heritage committee’s chair, the plan failed to address the preservation of Japantown’s history and culture and didn’t reflect the community’s desires.

The last-minute reversal disenfranchised many community members, said Sandy Mori, JTF board president. During a JTF and Japantown Organizing Committee joint meeting Nov. 6, she said that the BNP’s failure discouraged many people from remaining involved in the process. The plan, however, was further reworked and redrafted — this time addressing cultural heritage and intangible community assets — such as festivals and cultural classes, or groups that meet within the neighborhood, to eventually become the JCHESS.

Hamaguchi said the JCHESS was created by the Japantown Organizing Committee, an informal group created primarily out of the BNP committee, following the plan’s rejection by the city. Since 2009, the JCHESS was drafted and endorsed by various Japantown stakeholders through the help of the organizing committee and the JTF. The San Francisco Planning Department and the city Board of Supervisors approved the policy on Oct. 1, 2013.

Richard Wada, the former interim executive director of the Japantown Planning, Preservation and Development Task Force, said the city’s approval of the JCHESS is significant. “If Japantown is to survive then the resources and policies of San Francisco’s government must be in line with the needs of the Japantown community,” he wrote in an e-mail to the Nichi Bei Weekly. Wada said the JCHESS’ success lies in the various businesses, property owners, community organizations and institutions, residents and other interested parties to work together.

With the city’s blessing, the Japantown community is now considering how to use the document. Among the recommendations made by the JCHESS, the neighborhood commercial district and design guidelines are already in the works with the Planning Department. Hamaguchi said stakeholders in the community, such as the Japantown Merchants Association, are expected to review or oversee some of the projects.

The Planning Department’s plans for preservation include initiating the historic landmark designation process for the Kinmon Gakuen building at 2031 Bush St., the Japanese YWCA building on 1830 Sutter St. and the Peace Plaza between the Japan Center

East and West Malls. The landmark designation would provide context for future planning purposes by having the city recognize the buildings’ historical significance and commit to its physical preservation.

Shizu Mihara, board president of the Kinmon Gakuen, said she wants her organization to continue its 102-year legacy of teaching the Japanese language and culture, and hopes the landmark process will help the school. “The school is a treasure our ancestors left us and we want to guard it with our lives,” she said. Mihara said the prime real estate the school occupies has attracted the attention of investors, but she has declined to sell.

Mihara, however, said she wasn’t sure what the strategy is trying to do.

Cathy Inamasu, executive director of Nihonmachi Little Friends, said the JCHESS fits well with their future plans. “Our ‘Plant a Seed Campaign’ … fits well within the JCHESS as our project ensures that we will continue to bring hundreds of families into the community each year,” Inamasu said.

The nonprofit bilingual childcare center is currently raising funds to build an addition to its historic 1830 Sutter St. building, formerly the Japanese YWCA designed by famed architect Julia Morgan. Inamasu said her organization hopes to first finish the addition to the school through the fundraising campaign before designating the building as a landmark.

The landmark process for the YWCA and Kinmon Gakuen buildings initially were not included in the JCHESS adoption resolution. Osaki suggested the additions prior to the final vote by the Planning Commission and Historic Preservation Commission last September. Osaki said their inclusion was essential to recognize both buildings’ worth to the Japantown for future community members.

Organizing committee and JTF members who presented the JCHESS to the Planning Department said while the additions made sense, they hadn’t been reviewed and endorsed by the community organizations they represented.

Osaki told the Nichi Bei Weekly he interjected because he was surprised not to find any mention of the two pre-war buildings in the resolution when the Peace Plaza, which is not eligible for landmark status, was.

“The issue of the significance of those two properties have been going on since the planning process began back in 2000. This was nothing new,” he said. After the BNP, Osaki was unable to assist with drafting the JCHESS. For the past two-and-a-half years, he has been unable to regularly participate in the community due to a back injury.

“I actually never was a part of JCHESS,” he said. “I wasn’t even around … (and) in all my discussions with Bob Hamaguchi, when he came to visit me, those were the only two points that I continually pushed with him that need to be on the resolution. I always assumed, because it made so much sense, that they would be.”

He said the two pre-war historic buildings’ omission from the resolution pushed him to advocate for their inclusion. “There’s nothing wrong with that, anyone in the community should and always have the right to speak out in what they believe in, whether it goes along with the majority or not,” he said. “That’s what city hearings are for.”

As for the implementation, Osaki said the community center had been active in preserving Japantown for two decades on its own. Osaki said the nonprofit had hosted two Preserving Japantown conferences, secured the Ford Foundation’s support for developing the potential Community Land Trust, creating the Japantown History Walk, among other projects. “Some people think or feel (the JCHESS) is the first step toward preserving Japantown. It’s not. We’ve been doing this for a long time,” he said.

Osaki said, either way, for the JCHESS to be implemented, the Japantown community must have knowledgeable people working with a broad sampling of community members and possess both the infrastructure and finances to do so.

Among other community members, the JCHESS has drawn support, but many said they would need to study the document more closely.

Don Tamaki, the San Francisco Japantown Foundation’s board president, said the organization is not yet sure how it can support the JCHESS, but remains supportive of the Japantown community. Having given hundreds of thousands of dollars to promote the Japanese American culture and community, Tamaki said the board is also looking to set aside grants for the preservation and promotion of Japantown.

Meanwhile, the Japantown Task Force is aiming to reorganize into an implementation body for JCHESS.

JTF Restructuring
The JTF and organizing committee convened Nov. 6 to discuss the future direction of the JTF. “It’s quite an accomplishment to have a document endorsed by the city,” said Hamaguchi. “It now puts pressure on us to get started on its implementation.”

Hamaguchi expressed the need for a nonprofit organization to manage implementation and to accept funds from the city to take on such projects. “Fundraising for the 2014 to 2015 fiscal year begins in December,” he said. Citing the JTF’s positive reputation with the city, including the Planning Department, he said the JTF should reorganize to become that organization to request, present and receive funding for certain JCHESS related projects.

Hamaguchi said the JTF and organizing committee would continue to meet through June 30 (the day the JTF’s current projects and funding ends) to decide on a new structure for the organization, changes to its purpose and address potential funding sources.

At its most recent meeting, held Dec. 18, organizing committee member Paul Wermer provided a draft for the new implementation body. The draft addresses the potential decision-making process.

The current draft stresses the importance of community agreement on actions taken to implement the JCHESS, the need for a transparent decision making process, having a unified group position and to reach decisions in a timely manner without balkanizing the community.

The joint meetings expressed the need to fine-tune the JTF’s new role and presentation to the community to encourage participation. Hamaguchi said the entity would not be a directive body for the community. “There needs to be a note that this organization concerns only the JCHESS,” he said. “We are not the only entity in Japantown to be working on this.” The new body would then take on issues that affect public spaces or multiple stakeholders.

Issues recently discussed include a potential 36-story condo on 1481 Post St., the Geary Bus Rapid Transit system and the potential creation of a community land trust. Hamaguchi said the JTF has yet to identify an organization to oversee the land trust process.

Wermer proposed that the new organization would have a smaller board of seven to nine members, with larger workgroups and ad-hoc committees with open membership to form plans and decisions. While Wermer said he looked to a smaller board in the interest of making a quorum, those present at the meeting debated whether a small board would fairly represent a broad spectrum of the community.

Property owner Robert Sakai, who formerly operated the Uoki Sakai market, said the new organization must clarify the board’s extent of authority. He worried that, even if the majority of the work was done by open workgroups, members might become discouraged if the board does not respect their suggestions.

Ultimately, the JTF and organizing committee confronted the main question of trust. Wermer stressed transparency was essential to gaining the public’s trust during the creation of the JCHESS and should be no different in the new body.

Kenneth Kaji, of the organizing committee, said the JTF board differs from the Planning Department and city Board of Supervisors. “If the supervisors tell the Planning Department staff they don’t like their project, Planning can’t just walk away,” Kaji said.

“But here, … when people start to jump ship, that’s gonna be a problem.”

“It’s going to have to be and per-

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